BootLeg Betty

The House That Bette Built: A Rumbling On The River ~ A Bitter Dispute

The New York Times
Oars Fly in Rumble on the River
June 23, 2012

AMANDA KRAUS stood in her favorite spot on the second-floor deck of the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, which floats in a cove on the Harlem River where Dyckman Street meets the Harlem River Drive. She watched as a pair of $45,000 shells, each propelled by a gaggle of high school students, eight to a squad, rushed past. “When done right, it’s poetry in motion,” she said of rowing crew.

But when done wrong? Blades catch. Boats lurch. Competitions are lost. Disharmony and strife ensue.

That, more or less, is what has happened at the Sharp Boathouse over the past two years, as two nonprofit champions of local rowing — the New York Rowing Association, which had a contract to manage the boathouse, and Ms. Kraus’s Row New York — have been engaged in a battle for control.

The boathouse, designed to resemble the Calvert Vaux-designed Dairy in Central Park, with a zinc roof, board-and-batten siding and wraparound balconies, was built by a local nonprofit powerhouse, the New York Restoration Project, founded by the entertainer Bette Midler in 1995 to restore neglected parks in the city’s poorer areas. Ms. Midler envisioned it as a place where local youths would learn to row crew, and perhaps earn entry into the worlds that top rowers inhabit, worlds that can include Ivy League educations and Olympic berths.

To that end, the Restoration Project brought in the rowing association in 2003 with a 10-year contract to manage the boathouse and recruit and train neighborhood children. But in February, after an arbitration hearing, the Restoration Project evicted the association from the boathouse. In March, Row New York, which for a decade has run a successful girls’ rowing and scholastic program in Queens, was given the keys.

The rowing association claims Row New York helped hasten the eviction by casting doubt on its credibility and conspiring to replace it as manager of the Sharp Boathouse. Row New York says the Restoration Project contacted it about running the program after the rowing association failed to carry out Ms. Midler’s mission.

“Outreach rowing is what we do, free to the schools, free to most of the kids, but it was obvious to the rowing community at large that that’s not what was happening here before,” said Ms. Kraus, the executive director and founder of Row New York. “This wasn’t meant to be a high-end rowing club for kids.”

Amy Freitag, the executive director of the Restoration Project, said: “We were looking for someone who could provide the best program to suit Bette’s original dream and vision for the boathouse. Row New York’s record of success in Queens was overwhelmingly exciting to our organization.”

SWINDLER COVE PARK, which opened in 2003, was the Restoration Project’s first effort to create a park from scratch. After a $10 million cleanup, what had been a derelict, city-owned five-acre waterfront dump was transformed into an oasis of gardens, woods and wetlands.

The floating boathouse was a fanciful, and somewhat outlandish, auxiliary vision stoked, and eventually brought to fruition, by Ms. Midler, who declined to comment on the rift between the Restoration Project and the New York Rowing Association, a group she graced with a $10,000 donation in 2008.

In 1997, Ms. Midler was surveying her parkland in progress from the Harlem River promenade when she noticed a Columbia University rowing crew streaking along the river; she also noticed a bunch of children from the nearby Dyckman housing projects with their noses pressed to the fence, transfixed by the rowers, according to a 2003 New York Times article about the plan. She thought: Why not build a boathouse to offer rowing programs to neighborhood youths with the goal of securing them seats in the sort of university shells they were watching — and possibly scholarships, as well?

And why not, she mused, send some Washington Heights rowers to the 2012 Olympic Games? “We’ve got spirit. We’ve got pluck. Why not us?” she said at the time.

The plan had been to place the boathouse on the shore, but the State Department of Environmental Conservation feared it would harm the ecosystem, so it became a floating structure, which means it has to ride the six-foot ebb and flow of the tide twice daily. The Restoration Project has raised more than $5 million for construction and various repairs.

The Restoration Project initially consulted with the rowing association and Row New York about running the boathouse. But in 2003, Row New York was a fledgling program with borrowed boats and just eight rowers. The contract went to the association, which later approached Ms. Kraus about coordinating outreach programs. When those talks fell through, the rowing association assumed that function, as well.

“I think she felt like we left her standing at the altar,” said Thomas Curry, 43, a former collegiate rower who is the executive director of the New York Rowing Association. “But it was N.Y.R.P.’s decision. They felt she was too young and had no track record.”

The rowing association moved into the boathouse in 2004, paying a yearly management fee to the Restoration Project and taking responsibility for utilities and insurance; Mr. Curry said the rowing programs, even when supplemented by the rental fees charged to a few colleges for the privilege of rowing out of Sharp, never came close to breaking even. “We subsidized it with funds from our other programs in Westchester and Bergen County,” he said.

He also complained that Restoration Project executives took little interest in supporting the rowing program and were critical about the high costs of maintaining the boathouse. Pipes burst. Sprinkler systems went askew and drowned the rowing association’s computers, he said. Electrical bills were high. Toilets failed to flush.

Mr. Curry said that there were no specific goals or quotas regarding the recruitment of local rowers, and that for the first two years of the program, all 80 rowers (from junior high through high school) rowed free.

Of some 431 junior rowers in the Sharp program over the past decade, he said, 34 percent came from impoverished neighborhoods, and the program’s rowers had received roughly $4 million in grants, aid and scholarships. In a 2009 presentation to trustees, the rowing association detailed outreach efforts that included local high schools, the city’s parks department and groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters.

But the relationship began to disintegrate in 2009. The rowing association received its first eviction notice, for nonpayment of fees, that summer, but the Restoration Project did not pursue it, and the association paid $86,000 in fees owed. Last summer, another eviction notice arrived, and this time the rowing association was ordered to vacate the boathouse in August. The association obtained a temporary restraining order that allowed it to remain through the fall 2011 racing season, but the group was officially evicted in February. After paying $22,000 in insurance fees, Mr. Curry and the association moved out.

According to Ben Needell, chairman of the Restoration Project board, the rowing association’s fiscal delinquency was not its only shortcoming. “There were a lot of other things we disagreed with,” he said. “We operate in forgotten places of New York; we raised over $5 million for a boathouse that was built for the benefit of the community it was in, and we didn’t think N.Y.R.A. was operating adequately in the community, and that displeased us.”

But Mr. Curry has since accused Ms. Kraus of maligning his organization, conspiring for years with the Restoration Project to replace the rowing association at Sharp. Despite the boathouse’s problems, Mr. Curry said, “it is a great spot for racing in New York City, and Amanda has wanted to be in this boathouse since 2004, and since 2004 it’s been her mission to destroy N.Y.R.A. She doesn’t want any competition.”

Ms. Kraus acknowledged that, when asked by Restoration Project executives to characterize the extent of the outreach done by the rowing association at Sharp, she was not complimentary. “When it got to the point of arbitration between them, and N.Y.R.P. asked me if N.Y.R.A. was known for their outreach work, I said no,” she said. “All I told them was the truth.”

The chairman of the rowing association, Vince Paparo, a lawyer, who rowed at Fordham during college, described Ms. Kraus’s remarks as “unconscionable.” As for his group’s community outreach efforts, he said, “We’re a racing organization, not a social-welfare organization.”

INSIDE the boathouse on a recent afternoon, the racing shells were stacked like dominoes on the lower floor, while the whine of rowing machines in motion prevailed upstairs. The building rocked gently like a hammock in a breeze. Odoriferous piles of sneakers on the dock belonged to the teenagers out in the boats, four or eight to a shell, knifing through the water, oars arcing in unison, coxswains barking orders through a megaphone.

As soon as the rowing association had removed its last boat, Row New York moved in and announced plans to recruit more than 100 middle and high school rowers from neighboring schools in Washington Heights and Inwood in time for its fall session in September. It has nine new racing shells and a new partnership with WinTech, the company owned by Howard Winklevoss, father of Tyler and Cameron, the twin Olympic rowers better known for suing Mark Zuckerberg; each brother contributed $25,000 toward the boats. Row New York is paying $3,000 a month as a prime tenant of Sharp, in addition to utilities and insurance.

“I’ve waited a long time to get here, and I swear this will be the last summer ever that this beautiful boathouse doesn’t have a million kids rowing out of it, kids from this community,” Ms. Kraus said.

An outspoken mother of two with a master’s degree in education from Harvard, Ms. Kraus, 38, was the captain of the senior varsity team at the University of Massachusetts that won a Division II title at the N.C.A.A. championships in 1995. She started Row New York, based in Long Island City, Queens, to train female rowers in 2002, and has built recruiting partnerships with 30 Queens schools. She has promised to do for aspiring rowers in Inwood and Washington Heights what she has done there: teach them to swim, teach them to row, provide after-school tutoring and help them get into college. The program is free to 80 percent of participants; the other 20 percent pay on a sliding scale, according to family income.

Not all Row New York graduates become college athletes, but Ms. Kraus asserts that 99 percent of them have gone on to colleges, including Harvard, Georgetown and Wesleyan. Many have received scholarships; several were recruited by college rowing programs.

The programs at Sharp will be coed, an adventure for Ms. Kraus. “The main question Bette asked me during the vetting process was ‘What do you know about boys?’ ” said Ms. Kraus, who answered that she was married to one and was the mother of two more. She estimates start-up costs at Sharp will be close to $1 million. “That’s the most daunting part of this to me, raising the money,” she said. “I’m confident we’ll recruit the rowers. We’re good at that.”

“This isn’t about vindication,” she added. “It’s about realizing the vision this boathouse was built for.”

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